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Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World
Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World
John G. Stackhouse Jr.
Oxford University Press, 2008
384 pp., 135.00

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Roger E. Olson

Real-World Christian Ethics

A successor to Reinhold Niebuhr.

Is John Stackhouse the evangelical Reinhold Niebuhr? It's not a perfect fit, but it's close.In Making the Best of It, Stackhouse, Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology at Regent College, expounds a new Christian realism or realistic Christianity very much in the tradition of the man whose motto was "Love everyone; trust no one."

For doubters I cite this statement of real-world Christian ethics in Making the Best of It:

Most of the time … we know what to do and must simply do it. Sometimes, however, the [Christian] politician has to hold his nose and make a deal. The chaplain has to encourage his fellow soldiers in a war he deeply regrets. The professor has to teach fairly a theory or philosophy she doesn't think is true. The police officer has to subdue a criminal with deadly force. We are on a slippery slope indeed—and one shrouded in darkness, with the ground not only slippery but shifting under our feet. So we hold on to God's hand, and each other's, and make the best of it.

That is Christian realism in a nutshell—refusing to abdicate public responsibility in a sinful world where one has to make difficult choices and sometimes even compromise with sin and evil when necessary to achieve a greater good.

The counsel of perfectionism is to withdraw from public involvement because it sometimes means getting one's Christian hands dirty. Stackhouse disagrees. Throughout the book he takes on John Howard Yoder and his followers, who argue that obedience to the law of love as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount takes precedence over effectiveness. Stackhouse's impatience with perfectionists and separationists is surpassed only by his impatience with triumphalist Christians who attempt to take over and dominate the public realm with theocratic dreams (however veiled or even denied).

To the abdicators of Christian responsibility for the common good of the public square, Stackhouse, following Niebuhr, points to our vastly different cultural, religious, and political context compared with that of the first Christians. The disciples had no public power, and they remained a tiny, persecuted minority for centuries. Christians today, in much of the world, anyway, hold power and should use it for good even as they acknowledge their inevitable failures and imperfections.

To the modern Christian theocrats who wish to legislate every jot and tittle of Christian morality, imposing Christian ideals on everyone in society, Stackhouse virtually shouts about the seductions of power and the hypocrisy of crying about being persecuted by secularists while launching a crusade to crush pluralism. Some conservative critics who may agree with Stackhouse about much in this book will no doubt bristle when he declares that

We must do all we can to bring as much shalom as possible without trying to construct the New Jerusalem by ourselves. It is not enough to counter the false claim "You can't legislate morality" with the half-truth "Law is always legislated morality," much less with the might-makes-right attitude "Oh, yes, we can!" Yet these are the typical responses of many Christians today, frantic to wield what cultural power they have left to conform their societies to their values as much as possible. We need to think about what law can do well and cannot do well in a liberal, pluralized, democratic situation in which we participate as disciples of Jesus and as neighbors to many fellow citizens who are not. Law is a minimum, not an ideal, which orders our life together.

Can common sense be better brought to bear on our recent evangelical and American history? Making the Best of It, in spite of its rather pessimistic-sounding title, is like this throughout—offering uncommon common sense about complex ethical decision-making and Christian discipleship in a complicated and often depressing postmodern social reality.

The book begins with a pressing question that serves as its organizing theme. Paraphrasing Dietrich Bonhoeffer's famous query, "Who is Jesus Christ for us today?", Stackhouse asks, "Who are we, for Jesus Christ, today?" In other words, what does it mean to live as a follower of Jesus in this world now? Part 1 contains the author's reappropriation of H. Richard Niebuhr's classical typology of Christian approaches to culture in Christ and Culture. Stackhouse's clear preference is for a version of the "Christ and culture in paradox" model that Niebuhr attributed to Luther and Lutheran theology and ethics in general.

Part 2 contains insightful expositions and critiques of three influential 20th-century Christian social thinkers: C. S. Lewis, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While this section is eminently readable and engaging, it is somewhat difficult to discern its precise function within the book as a whole. Presumably Stackhouse regards these three figures as salutary models of his recommended approach, which insists on recognizing ambiguity both in the world at large and in Christian life in it. With Niebuhr, Stackhouse avers that the "Christ and culture in paradox" model must never lead the Christian to celebration of having to live uncomfortably with two masters. Whenever the disciple absolutely must, after much prayer and reflection, compromise with evil, he should repent and not revel in self-congratulation. Bonhoeffer's response to his involvement in the plot to kill Hitler serves as a model.

Part 3 serves the main course of the book's meal. Stackhouse recommends what he calls "a (Protestant) Christian tetralectic" as the pattern for ethical decision-making and acting in a fallen world. This is his version of the old "Wesleyan quadrilateral" of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. I have read no better explanation of how this pattern functions than here.

After "Method in Ethics: A Sketch" comes "The Story and the Mission," in which Stackhouse delivers his account of the Christian metanarrative and the missions to which it impels us. Among other eminently reasonable arguments, the author treats us to a marvelous critique of the popular and overly simplistic "What Would Jesus Do?" approach to ethical decision-making. He points out that we are never called to imitate every detail of Jesus' lifestyle (remaining single or eschewing a home, etc.). Rather, instead of "What Would Jesus Do?" we should be asking, "What would Jesus want me to do, here and now?" Sometimes that obedience regrettably includes doing things we cannot imagine Jesus doing (such as participating in a plot to kill a wicked leader).

After "The Story and the Mission" comes "Vocation" and finally "Principles of a New Realism." While many readers will find rich guidance for Christian discipleship in the former, I found the latter especially enlightening, congenial, and bracing. Stackhouse dwells on the postmodern emphasis on universal mixed motives and mixed results of all human decision-making, however seemingly well-intentioned. Even the most spiritually minded disciple of Jesus Christ will inevitably have imperfect motives. A Christian leader under whom I would work introduced himself to his workforce this way: "My door will always be open to you; always feel free to come and talk to me about anything. You can question my judgment, but never question my motives." Stackhouse (and I) would remind him and everyone else that, precisely because we are finite and fallen beings, our motives are the problem most of the time.

Stackhouse's view of human nature will be called pessimistic by some critics who believe in perfection or at least purity of heart as a real possibility this side of the Kingdom. Stackhouse and I call it realism. But never let it hinder doing our best with what we have and are, even as we muddle through the tasks of being faithful amid ambiguity and ambivalence.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of Stackhouse's social ethic for many to swallow will be the most subtle. He delineates two orders of divine commands that we are to learn and do our best to follow: those belonging to the order of creation, such as care for nature, cultural creativity, and involvement in government and family life; and those belonging to the order of redemption, such as evangelism and devotion. This is a fairly traditional binary analysis of God's commands and our Christian duties. According to Stackhouse, our first priority of obedient involvement is to the order of creation. I suspect reaction to his (and my) religious heritage (pietist fundamentalism) largely shapes this ordering of things.

Roger E. Olson is professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University. He is the author of The Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology (WJK).

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